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Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007 04:49 am

Chip off my shoulder

Finally, it's time to give the attorney for the Black Guardians his due

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Do me a favor: Skip this column. If you’re a regular reader, you already know the truth; if you’re not, you likely won’t care. If you don’t avert your eyes now, you’re going to get a shot of a middle-aged reporter’s full-frontal pettiness, and it isn’t going to be pretty.

I’ve tried other options. Forgiving, forgetting, shrugging it off, moving forward, biting my tongue, saying “what the hell” — none of that worked. The only remedy I haven’t tested is called getting it off my chest.

Here goes: In September 2002, I came to work for Illinois Times. On my first day here, then-editor Pete Sherman handed me a list of about 20 story ideas. I immediately zeroed in on one: Black cops at Springfield Police Department were complaining about racial discrimination. I had explored this same subject years earlier, when I worked for a newspaper in Dallas, and I figured that I could hit the ground running.

I started by searching the archives of the State Journal-Register, using the keywords “African-American police.” A handful of officers’ names kept cropping up — Rickey Davis, Ralph Harris, Renatta Frazier. The stories about rookie Frazier were salacious; she had resigned after being investigated for failure to prevent the rape of a fellow officer’s daughter. I asked Pete, “Has anybody ever interviewed Frazier?” Nope.

I contacted her attorney, Courtney Cox, who eventually put me in touch with his client. At our first interview, Frazier struck me as someone possessed by the kind of fragile anger that masks hurt feelings. She had been forced to leave a job she loved, and she didn’t understand why. She was convinced that the other officers had been out to get her.

I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. The proof appeared on the video of Frazier’s internal-affairs interrogation, which I took home with me one night, wondering how I would stay awake to watch hour after hour of tedious questioning. It turned out to be a pretty chilling movie: About halfway through, as Frazier broke down under the IA officers’ badgering, she requested a break and exited the room with Cox. As they left, the camera caught the two IA officers exchanging a congratulatory hand slap.

The next day, I phoned Cox, who had never watched the video, and told him that I had found something incriminating. Within a week or so, I discovered something even worse.

The main charge against Frazier had to do with her response to a 911 call from an 18-year-old girl complaining that men were knocking on her apartment door. Frazier checked, found no suspicious persons, and left to respond to a nearby 911 call. The next morning, the girl called 911 again and this time told officers that she had been raped.

To me, it seemed crucial to find out exactly how long Frazier would have had to stay to prevent this sexual assault. Ten minutes? Two hours? Another shift? After a series of phone calls, I found a brave soul (outside the police department) willing to tell me the facts.

I still have a copy of the e-mail I sent Cox. The subject line says “guess what” and the body says: “The rape occurred before the victim ever called police. She called only after the men had LEFT her apt.”

I also kept Cox’s response: “Are you saying that the rape occurred before Renatta was dispatched to the scene? How did you find this out? . . . I can’t wait to hear more about this.”

For a journalist, it doesn’t get any better than righting a wrong. The morning my story broke [see “Cop Out,” Oct. 31, 2002], I woke up feeling blissful. I got to enjoy that feeling for a few hours before Cox, Davis, and Harris staged a press conference.

At that event, Cox distributed a flier announcing that he had discovered the truth. Illinois Times wasn’t mentioned on his flier. The next day, he sent a brief apology by way of e-mail, but the damage had been done.

Over the years, the story behind the story has become hopelessly muddied, and various distortions have been engraved into the permanent record. For example, U.S. District Judge Jeanne Scott, in a recent opinion, wrote that the police department “revealed” the truth, echoing a revisionist explanation pounded into the public record by creative writers at the SJ-R. Another oft-repeated scenario has Cox making the discovery and tipping me — a fiction disproved by the fact that he hand-delivered all of his subsequent “discoveries” directly to bigger media outlets.

In truth, since November 2003, the only significant document Cox has shared with me was the deposition of Deputy Chief Rob Williams [see “Reluctant witness,” Jan. 19], which I pried out of him only after sending numerous requests through his clients.

Last week, Cox’s big case — the race-discrimination lawsuit he filed on behalf of several black officers — ended in a mistrial over questions regarding that very deposition. The judge said that the attorneys had “created an ethical minefield.”

I wish I could say I was surprised.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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